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Malware targeting Tibetan activists discovered

June 3, 2013

Dharamsala, May 27, 2013: Researchers at the global security software company ESET have discovered a cyberespionage malware targeting Tibetan activists which could have been active unnoticed for several years.

The threat, which has been named Win32/Syndicasec.A, bears characteristics very similar to previous campaigns of espionage against Tibetan activists but uses unusual techniques to evade detection and achieve persistency on infected systems, ESET said last week.

According to Alexis Dorais-Joncas, Security Intelligence Team Lead at ESET, the malware bypasses the UAC (User Account Control) mechanism in Windows to run arbitrary commands with elevated privileges without prompting users for confirmation.

This technique is used to execute a second malicious component that registers a piece of Javascript code in the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) subsystem.

“This technique has the excellent property (from the attacker’s point of view) of not requiring any malicious code to be stored as a regular file on disk. This causes standard dynamic analysis tools such as Process Monitor to fail to clearly highlight the malicious activity,” Dorais-Joncas said.

The rogue WMI script added by the malware makes HTTP requests to hardcoded URLs that point to the RSS feeds of free blog sites. The title tags of RSS entries in those feeds contain encrypted commands that, when decoded, reveal the URLs of the actual command-and-control (C&C) servers.

“The threat uses fake blogs to discover its C&C servers, which are hosted on Tibet-related domains,” Dorais-Joncas said.

The ESET researchers infected a test machine with Win32/Syndicasec in order to monitor its traffic and found that the interactions between the C&C server and the malware didn’t appear to be automated.

“Every day would bring different commands sent at non-regular time intervals, making it look just as if someone was sitting behind a console and manually controlling infected hosts,” Dorais-Joncas said.

The domain names used for the C&C servers included references to Tibet, for example tbtworld.info and tbtsociety.info. The most recent C&C domain, which was set up in late April, is called nedfortibt.info.

According to the ESET researchers, the infection scale of Win32/Syndicasec is small and strictly limited to Nepal and China.

“The lack of built-in commands [in the master script] prevents us from discovering the real end-goal of this operation,” Dorais-Joncas said. “However, we can affirm that the various characteristics observed around this threat are similar to other espionage campaigns against Tibetan activists that we have observed.”

Last year, security software company AlienVault had made rare revelations linking the long-running malware assault on Tibetan groups with a Chinese programmer connected to the Chinese government.
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